Monday, May 4, 2015


Some of you will not like this op-ed of mine on the PEN/Charlie Hebdo brouhaha.


Francofou said...

Terrorism and fanatacism demonstrate by definition a lack of self-restraint. How to counter that? It's a tricky matter. Self-restraint can easily be seen as weakness; rhetoric ("zero tolerance," etc.) is empty. Cool-headedness is needed, and that can lead either to self-restraint or to action, neither of which is a priori the better response.

FrédéricLN said...

I will certainly like this op-ed ;-)

I think it makes the important points.

"there is nothing dishonorable about asking whether other forms of engagement might not offer a greater likelihood of success." => implying that we should recognize that fanatics of all kinds, and terrorists organizations especially, do have power. They exist. The idea that defying them in some way would annihilate them, make them non-existent, is delusive and counter-productive. Yet that idea is widespread, I think, at least, in some Parisian intelligentsia. It suggests some misleading feeling of overwhelming power — some feeling that atheism is such an obvious truth that it should rule the world, that freedom of speech (or of many things) is necessary enough to be protected by means of depriving others from their liberties (surveillance society, interdiction of religious or semi-religious signs at school…). It recalls me, as little as I do know it, the "colonialist" spirit of the 1890's. Such new "colonialists" should be recalled to "consider better their enemies, at least for the bad they can do".

"It is fair to judge political speech on grounds of utility." => and more broadly, it is fair to judge many kinds of speeches on grounds of relevance in their field. Luz's drawing of a (likely) prophet Muhammad saying "All is forgiven" after the slander, was highly relevant, at least imho. Organizing a competition of Muhammad's caricatures looks like provocation for the sake of provocation, or of highlighting a right to blasphemy. Is it relevant? Well, maybe it is. But, imho, much less relevant than Luz's point about forgiveness. Everyone will appreciate his or her own way — that is what your text does, with an unusual proportion of "I"!

brent said...

I appreciate the care with which you distinguish 'may' from 'ought' and agree that 1) discretion and tolerance--mitsein-- are Republican virtues, and 2) Charlie Hebdo's crudity of expression is not the most useful register for social criticism.

On the other hand I feel that to achieve the optimal co-existence of Islam and laicité in France, there is real justification for the pressure Charlie exerted with its scandalous cartoons. My understanding is that Islamists transgress the boundaries a lot: interrupting classrooms and demanding that canonical texts be removed from syllabuses, for example, or--yes--insisting on rights of hate-speech and even of violent censorship, as we see in retrospect.

My impression--at a distance--is that French people need to grant Islam a more legitimate place in civil society--building mosques where needed, for example, on the same basis as churches and synagogues, and desisting from ridiculous harassment over long skirts, head scarves, and halal dietary rules. In return, French muslims need to accept the Republican standards of speech--which includes cartoons of Mohamed, however painful. Did Charlie help assert the second half of this equation? Yes, without a doubt. Did the Republic respond in January by asserting proper respect for muslims? Certainly not--the harassment of kids who failed to observe the famous minute of silence, the prosecutions for 'condoning terrorism', showed that the Republic has a long way to go, just as the Islamists do, before that golden mean is reached.

Should Charlie be saluted--malgré tout--for its contribution? Yes, pressing the censorship question was their role, and they performed it courageously. Now it's time for more discreet, reasonable, socially responsible players to grant Islam its rightful place, not as a bullying, intolerant voice but as a legitimate part of civil society.

Passerby said...

Very well articulated Op-ed, Art.

I find that my views match yours on most points (including that my conception of freedom of speech goes beyond what the French law currently allows). But in my opinion there is one characteristic of Charlie Hebdo that is barely ever mentioned in this debate (including in your Op-ed): before the attacks it was an utterly confidential newspaper.

I mean, many French people heard about Charlie, and a good chunk knew the tone of the publication. But we're talking about a periodical with 10'000 subscribers and a total circulation of 45'000 copies on the best weeks. Almost uniquely in France. That's about 1 copy in each newsstand across the entire country.

Aside from its core audience, barely anyone ever saw its weekly covers (seeing caricatures inside was even less likely). To be offended by Charlie, one had to want to be offended (or be a newsstand employee).

Which is why making Charlie into a monument of free speech, or scolding it for being too confrontational makes no sense at all.
It was an invisible publication written by aging leftists & atheists with a penchant for scatological jokes, for aging leftists & atheists with a penchant scatological jokes.

The only reason it ever got any attention from a bunch of extremists looking for a symbolic target is that it was one of the few newspapers in France and in Europe to show their support to the Danish cartoonist by publishing there own cartoons.

Massilian said...

This is so silver spoon measured, refined and delightful, custom tailored for the Pen Gala dinner. audience.
I prefer straight stuff with no chaser.
- Charlie is not a political magazine, it is a satirical one.
- Satire is, according to the Oxford Dictionnary : The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
- The Pen award was not intended to reward ill-mannered satire, but civilized freedom of expression.
- Before the Charlie killings, no cartoonist of Charlie would have ever even dreamed to make the trip to the Pen gala dinner and receive the "Penoscar" of freedom of expression in front of rows of the intl. intellectual elite dressed in tuxedos for the occasion.
I can imagine what Reiser or Wolinsky would have drawn instead.
- This whole thing is just plain grotesque, I wouldn't attend either ! Nor should anybody who understand what satire is all about.

bernard said...

I agree by and large with the comment by anonymous, except on the free speech thing, which I'll get to.

Charlie had not been part of the national conversation for several decades and was largely irrelevant. It was the assassination of its journalists, employees and several policemen, followed, literally inevitably, by the attack on French Jews that made it part of the national conversation. Personally, I stopped chuckling a long time ago when I saw their covers, but I did always love Wolinsky, Reiser and Delpheil de Ton (DDT).

I just wrote "followed, literally inevitably, by the attack on French Jews" and that gets me to where I disagree on French Free Speech laws. The law on denial of the holocaust, on racism is absolutely necessary, given the reality of France. There was historically a short, blessed period of a few decades following WWII where anti-Semitism in France almost completely vanished. This was likely due to the fact that those few who had been persecuted by nazis and their local accomplices but survived, and those who had fought nazism and survived, were alive and, for the second kind at least, had serious political, moral, societal influence. That glorious generation is now almost entirely dead and antisemitism is again rampant in large fractions of French society and, of course, fed as well by the apparently never ending war in the middle east.

In short antisemitism was rampant for centuries in France prior to 1945, is becoming rampant since 1990 more or less, and was banned from public discourse for 45 years in between. The law was not necessary for those 45 years and, in fact, did not exist. It is highly necessary now, in my view, as the conjunction of the passing away of witnesses and the growing renewed antisemitism lead substantial numbers to deny the Shoah. And, while there have been several genocides since or before then, nothing equals the horror of the cold blooded industrialisation of this particular mass murder by a supposedly civilised nation. I know it for a fact in France: if the murderous terrorists do not hit Jews first, rest assured they will always hit Jews second. In this society, we are like the bird in a coal mine that signals big trouble ahead.

So, Art, I disagree on this precise Free Speech point, though I would agree with most of the rest of your superbly written OpEd.

Mitch Guthman said...


I think you are cleverly dancing around the real conundrum. You seem to be advocating for two contradictory values at the same time. You are loudly proclaiming the absolute right to blaspheme while at the same time urging everyone to refrain from ever actually exercising that right because doing so would be “impolite” but also (and maybe really) because only a fool whacks a hornets’ nest with a stick.

I think with the Charlie Hebdo massacre a Rubicon of sorts was crossed. I think you have to chose one or the other. Condemning blasphemy while acknowledging that people can (but shouldn’t engage in it) is not an abstract call for a politer discourse between Islam and its critics. Rather, at this point, it is little more than a tacit acknowledgment that the religious fanatics are calling the tune now and and that the prudent thing is to pretend that the dance we are being forced to perform is one we would have freely chosen for ourselves. I no longer see any middle ground between unqualified support for blasphemy and a tacit understanding that anyone who blasphemes against Islam is on his own and won’t get any help from the rest of us.

Charlie Hebdo blasphemed. There was a massacre. The Danish cartoonists published their cartoons and others republished those cartons; some of these people were murdered, others had their property and their lives destroyed and all those who survived will spend the remainder of their lives under constant threat. The danger is only intensifying; politely averting one’s eyes won’t make it go away.

It seems obvious to me that some of PEN’s critics have learned the obvious lesson that we in the West now live under very much the same blasphemy laws as in Pakistan. Naturally, they don’t like it but the butcher’s bill is already very high and they don’t see a way around things as they are. I can understand deciding that discretion is the better part of valor but everyone needs to be honest about what this means for the future. The places where we live will be forever different and we will spend our lives looking over our shoulders.

A response to threats of murder against blasphemy that is anything less than wholehearted, with no hemming and hawing or genuflecting at the altar of politeness is no defense at all. What matters is the right to publish blasphemy without fear of reprisals by violent religious fanatics. If it exists only in the abstract and with the tacit understanding that the right won’t ever be exercised, then it really doesn’t exist at all.

FrédéricLN said...

@ mitch Guthman "What matters is the right to publish blasphemy without fear of reprisals by violent religious fanatics. If it exists only in the abstract and with the tacit understanding that the right won’t ever be exercised, then it really doesn’t exist at all."

But if one publishes blasphemy, anywhere in the world, he/she may fear reprisal by violent religious fanatics. If one publishes insightful papers about weapons trade, he/she may well be found floating in a river. If you — and so on.

Just because the one who publishes is not alone in the world. Conflicts are real.

Supporting these who wish to publish blasphemy, or who wish to investigate about weapons trade, ok, but how would we do if these people were our own children? Would we push them to demonstrate in the street their intentions? Wouldn't we tell them something like "if you really intend to, well, aim precisely and run fast" ?

Anonymous said...

Very well put Mitch. Your points firmly nail the fallacy in the very seductive argument put forward in Art's OpEd piece.
There really can be no ifs and no buts when it comes to defending Freedom of Expression. Any call for 'self-restraint' (in reality a quisling-like capitulation) is far too easily interpreted by those who use terror and murder to silence opponents, as further encouragement.
There can be little doubt that authoritarian religious fundamentalists are making increasing attacks on free speech, as they seek to impose global blasphemy laws on all who do not share their beliefs. These were among the concerns for which Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Jews and Muslims were brutally assassinated in Paris this winter.
Jacques Julliard, a long-standing Socialist with strong Catholic roots and editorialist on Marianne, summed up the issue in a piece (Marianne No 805, 22-28 September 2012) days after an earlier extremist attack on Charlie Hebdo over its cartoons: “If Voltaire or one of his contemporaries were to return today he (they) would be shocked not by our technological progress but by the regression in our liberty... he would find a world on fire, bloodied under the yoke of fanaticism and obscurantism ... We remain faithful to the spirit of the French revolution as transmitted by Stanislas de Clermont- Tonerre on 23rd December 1789 who wrote, with regard to the status of the Jews: ‘we must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and agree to everything for the Jews as individuals’. This maxim, which does not recognise the rights of communities but only those of individuals that make up such communities, rests and will remain the golden rule that underpins our Republic... In the name of the principles of this Republic, solidarity, total solidarity with Charlie Hebdo because if we do not exercise our liberties they will wither...”.

Google "Freedom of Speech – No Ifs No Buts" if you want to read a fuller translation of his salient points.

FrédéricLN said...

@ Anonymous : as far as I know, never did Voltaire organize any kind of event intended to praise freedom of speech / of blasphemy for itself. Let's prevent confusion of the flag of freedom, with freedom itself.